Tuesday, February 14, 2017

From the DVR: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1960)


Mark Twain’s classic novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in this country in 1885 (it was introduced in the UK a couple of months earlier), is considered one of the great works in American literature.  Both schools and libraries have either banned or attempted to ban the book practically since its publication (let’s be honest—Finn features a generous use of the n-word, which sets off a lot of people’s trigger warnings), which is a shame since the novel is nothing short of brilliant in its satirical examination of the mores and attitudes of that period (racism, the gullibility of human nature, etc.).

The satire in the book doesn’t always translate well to the many instances The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been adapted for the silver screen.  I’m sure many of us have their personal favorite version; mine is the 1960 adaptation directed by the Oscar-winning Michael Curtiz, a Warner Brothers veteran helming his first feature for MGM.  (Curtiz would direct only two more films before his passing in 1962; his valedictory film, The Comancheros [1961], was mostly directed by star John Wayne…who insisted that Curtiz receive sole credit [Curtiz was gravely ill from the cancer that ultimately took his life].)  It turned up on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ not too long ago, and I decided to DVR it as it had been a good while since I visited the film.

In the 1960 movie, the titular hero (played by Eddie Hodges) decides to cut loose from a suffocating life of “sivilization” in Hannibal, Missouri…but also to escape his drunken father “Pap” (Neville Brand), who has a rather nasty tendency to bat the fruit of his loins around whenever he’s had a snootful.  The Widder Douglas (Josephine Hutchinson) looks after Huck whenever Pap is in his cups, and the elder Finn has agreed to let the Widow take care of his son on a permanent basis…provided she can come up with five large.  To get the $5,000, she’s going to have to sell her slave Jim (Archie Moore) …so, after Huck cleverly fakes his own death, he and Jim “light out” down the Mississippi on their way to N’awlins—with Huck’s ultimate destination being South America.  (Jim just wants to get to Illinois, a free state…particularly since he’s become the chief suspect in Huck’s “murder.”)

As they make their way down the Mighty Miss, the two comrades are embroiled in a series of misadventures…their paths continually crossing with a pair of con men passing themselves off as The King of France (Tony Randall) and The Duke of Bilgewater (Mickey Shaughnessy).  These two hucksters attempt to swindle two sisters (Sherry Jackson, Patty McCormack) into believing they’re lost relatives…and while Huck initially participates in their scheme (as a nephew named “Percy”), he ultimately spills the beans to the sisters (just about the time the real relatives show up).  Later, Huck and Jim find themselves involved with a traveling circus…and eventually Huck must free his friend when Jim is imprisoned after being turned in by the King and the Duke for a $200 reward.

The movie differs a bit from Twain’s novel in a few ways: the Grangerford-Shepherdson feud receives only a passing mention, and the book’s sequence where Huck dons drag and learns of the reaction to his “death” from town newcomer Judith Loftus has been excised completely—instead, Huck’s female masquerade is used toward the end of the movie when he’s attempting to crash Jim out of jail.  The Huck Finn character was introduced in a previous Twain novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and for Finn the author worked into its plot a reappearance from Tom—he’s the nephew of Silas and Sally Phelps, who own the plantation where Jim is being held.  (The Sawyer character does not appear in the 1960 film.)

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was MGM’s second adaptation of the Twain novel; in 1939, the studio released a version starring Mickey Rooney as Huck…and for many classic film buffs of my acquaintance, it remains their favorite of all the adaptations.  (I tend to develop a case of hives even thinking about the 1939 film…for reasons you’re no doubt familiar with if you stop by here on a regular basis.)  I like the 1960 Huckleberry Finn because it features a cornucopia of great character actors: Neville Brand, Mickey Shaughnessy, TDOY fave Judy Canova, Andy Devine, TDOY idol Buster Keaton (as a lion tamer!), Finlay Currie, Josephine Hutchinson, John Carradine, Royal Dano, Sterling Holloway…and on and on and on.  (OTR veterans/voice artists Roy Glenn, Henry Corden, and Parley Baer all have bit parts…as does TV stalwart Burt Mustin as a shotgun toting farmer.)  Tony Randall gets top billing (with Patty “Bad Seed” McCormack second) in the credits, but the chief role of Huck is played by Eddie Hodges, a child performer (he played Ron Howard’s role in the 1957 stage version of The Music Man) who had received good notices for his film debut in A Hole in the Head (1959).

Hodges would later do work for Disney (Summer Magic, The Happiest Millionaire) but you might also remember him for his brief career as a recording artist with singles like Girls, Girls, Girls (Made to Love) and I’m Gonna Knock on Your Door (his biggest hit, peaking at #12 in 1961).  (Billy “Crash” Craddock had an even bigger hit with a cover version of Door, cracking the Top Five of the country charts in 1972.)  Eddie’s on Facebook, by the way, in case you wanted to say hi-dy.  He’s very good in Finn, not the slightest bit cloying…and he has a great rapport with co-star Archie Moore, the ex-boxing heavyweight playing Jim.  (Moore also made appearances in The Carpetbaggers [1964] and The Fortune Cookie [1966] …but we remember him best at Rancho Yesteryear for that incredible fight on top of a moving train he engages in with Charles Bronson in 1975’s Breakheart Pass.  Moore was fifty-eight at the time he made Pass, and did that fight without a stunt double.  This also makes him a boss.)

There are four songs in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—owing to the fact that the movie had originally been planned as a musical at MGM in 1952, with Dean Stockwell playing Huck and the team of Gene Kelly and Danny Kaye as The King and The Duke.  (Kelly put the kibosh on that project, but you can’t deny it wouldn’t have made for an interesting outing.)  Huckleberry Finn turns up on TCM from time to time, but if you’re not willing to wait that long it is available on DVD—either for purchase (it’s back in print) or rental at ClassicFlix.

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